With just weeks before his inauguration, Chicago Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson is already trying to make progress on his top public safety priority for his first 100 days in office: to double the number of young people the city hires this summer.
“We want to prevent violence in the city of Chicago — so making sure that youth hiring doubles, so that it’s not just for summer hiring, but it’s year-round,” Johnson said the day after he won the April runoff election which was dominated by concerns over crime.
Johnson’s leadership transition team comprises grassroots organizers and union leaders who are building upon the city’s current summer employment program for 14- to 24-year-olds. They have started meeting with corporations to push them to hire more kids this season, said senior adviser Jason Lee.
But doubling the number of teens enrolled in the city’s program might not be an attainable goal for Johnson’s first summer in office, experts told WBEZ. He will take office just two weeks before the city’s deadline to apply for summer employment closes and will be locked into a budget set by the previous administration.
Still, researchers and community organizers said they are happy to see Johnson’s transition team attempting to tackle the hiring benchmark immediately because studies show youth employment reduces violence among participants. And a new study shows Chicago’s teen employment, particularly among Black teens, lags the national rate.
“Lori’s still the mayor, but now’s the time to identify all sorts of groups big or small that don’t have youth employment,” said Jack Wuest, a veteran alternative schools administrator in Illinois who runs Alternative Schools Network, who supported Johnson’s opponent in the runoff election.
“I think he can do it. It’s not going to be easy … But you could build,” Wuest said. “He’s gonna be mayor for four years, maybe beyond that.”
Corporate partnerships have been limited
The city promoted its summer jobs program, dubbed One Summer Chicago (OSC) this Thursday, with a callout for applications and for businesses to sign up and hire more kids.
The program has struggled to bounce back to pre-pandemic levels even though demand for summer jobs is high and jobless rates among young people in Chicago are, too.
Last summer, OSC helped employ 20,544 kids in paid positions — fewer than half the number of kids who applied for the program. In 2019, the city’s One Summer Chicago program employed 31,552 young people — which was nearly all the people who applied that year.
The city works with community organizations and partners with sister agencies such as Chicago Public Schools, Chicago Transit Authority, City Colleges of Chicago as well as the Cook County Forest Preserves to hire young people in publicly-funded positions.
It also partners with corporations that can take the financial burden off the city by covering wage costs for young workers. But in 2022, “there were limited employment opportunities underwritten by corporate partners,” a Chicago Department of Family Support Services spokesperson said.
“There are more kids that want jobs than, typically, there are jobs available … We’re still nowhere near the scale that we need if we want to have truly large-scale citywide impacts,” said Roseanna Ander, executive director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab, which has studied youth employment.
The need is high. The jobless rate for 16- to 19-year-olds in Chicago outpaced the national rate in 2021 by nearly 15%, and is higher for Black teens in that age group, according to a forthcoming study from the University of Illinois at Chicago’s (UIC) Great Cities Institute viewed by WBEZ.
About 87% of Black teens in Chicago were jobless in 2021, compared to 80% total in the city and 66% nationwide, the study shows.
Scaling the program to twice its size this summer will require bigger buy-in from businesses, many of whom supported Paul Vallas for mayor over concerns about Johnson’s plan to increase taxes on certain businesses, said former 24th Ward Ald. Michael Scott. Scott led the City Council committee on Education and Child Development, before leaving for the private sector and getting appointed to the Chicago Board of Education.
Johnson’s challenge will be “mending some of the rhetoric that may have caused a rift between the business community and the incoming administration, or at that time the campaign,” Scott said.
But Lee said businesses have been “enthusiastic” about scaling up youth employment.
“We’ve had incredible conversations with the business community. They’ve been extremely gracious,” Lee said. “They, for a while, have expressed an interest in this youth jobs initiative, and they see it as an opportunity for them to really participate in something that they’re concerned about.”
But even if more corporations do step up this summer, relying solely on the private sector to boost employment opportunities won’t be a panacea, said Wuest, the veteran alternative schools administrator.
When hiring young people, many of whom lack job experience, the city needs to look for and pay community organizations that can help prepare inexperienced kids for a job before they move onto the private sector in subsequent summers, Wuest said, which requires an increase to public funding from the state for summer programs.
“You want to make sure that they can show up on time, they know how to follow through on instructions, they don’t curse at people if they get mad at them,” Wuest said. “It sounds elemental, but it isn’t if they haven’t had the experience. And when they learn those skills, then they’re good prospects for all the jobs that are out there.”
Reaching those who need it most
Ander said for the program to succeed in reducing violence, the city needs to kick into overdrive its efforts to recruit those who are at highest risk of gang or other criminal activity. Those include individuals no longer enrolled in school, who make up the vast majority of the young people who become victims of gun violence, she said.
Around 8% of 16- to 19-year-olds in Chicago were out of school and out of work in 2021 — and that’s worse for Black teens (9.4%) and Latino teens (10.4%), according to the forthcoming UIC study.
Some worry the city’s OSC program in its current form isn’t reaching those kids.
“It’s usually the good kids, who have no problem, whose families already have access to One Summer Chicago who get those jobs,” said 20th Ward Ald. Jeanette Taylor, who was recently chosen by the council to head a newly created Committee on Youth Services. “(It’s) not the young person who’s thinking about going to a gang or who was born into gang affiliation but has no way out.”
Taylor, a mother of five, said her daughters are frequently accepted into the program, while her two sons — one with autism and another with a behavioral disorder — have been rejected. She suggests the city should get more creative in where it recruits young people, such as neighborhood corner stores or gas stations.
A study of the city’s 2012 pilot program — One Summer Chicago Plus, which included a job plus cognitive behavioral therapy and a mentor — showed that reaching the highest risk kids proves to be a successful public safety tool. The study revealed a 43% decline in violent crime arrests for program participants during the year they were involved in the summer program.
Though that version of OSC no longer exists, the city is trying to expand the populations the general program serves. In 2022, OSC for the first time started giving priority to populations the city believes are most in need of resources, a DFSS spokesperson said.
Those include people with disabilities, learners whose primary language is not English, so-called “opportunity youth,” defined by the city as kids who are out of school and out work, and kids enrolled in a lower quality CPS school, according to the district’s rankings.
Last summer, 54.7% of youth enrolled in DFSS summer programs identified with one or more of those “target populations,” DFSS said.
Fair pay at issue
During her summers working with the city’s jobs program, Assata Lewis learned the organizing skills that landed her in the role she sits today: a program manager for a youth-run organization that pushes the city to do better engaging young people and giving them safe spaces to gather.
“Those organizations really helped finite my skills in facilitating and content creation, curriculum building and things like that,” Lewis, 23, said.
But the pay was dismal — she recalls making $400 for the entire summer, and only getting a paycheck twice in the roughly three-month period.
“You definitely have to work another job,” Lewis said. “A lot of people know about One Summer Chicago, and a lot of people in those neighborhoods understand what it can do. But I just feel like there’s so many other opportunities to make more money doing other things. That is not very appealing.”
Since Lewis’s time with the program, the city has increased the pay rate for teens hired through DFSS-funded positions, though it couldn’t say what sister agencies and corporate partners pay.
Three years ago, teens were making $8.25 per hour. In 2022, 16- to 24-year-olds were paid $15 per hour for 20 hours a week, for six weeks, according to DFSS.
But those between 14 and 15 were paid a stipend of $75 a week for six weeks, or $450 total.
Pay aside, Lewis wants to see the city take a more robust approach to reaching kids who live in high-violence areas. Her group has been pushing to pass the so-called “Peace Book Ordinance” — which includes an app that helps connect teens to violence prevention organizations, jobs and free events in their neighborhood on a block-by-block level.
Lewis said the Peace Book is more comprehensive than past efforts, and is hopeful Johnson will make it a reality.
“Part of the issue around young people not being employed is that the only free space for them to do things is downtown,” Lewis said. She pointed to the problems the city saw this past weekend when two teens were shot and 15 people were arrested amid large teen gatherings in the Loop.
“[With the peace book] there will be identifying what activities do the young people need in order to want to be in their communities? Because a lot of times they’re going downtown, they’re going to 31st, or wherever it is, because they don’t want to be in their neighborhoods. There’s just a feeling that people don’t care about their neighborhoods, or they don’t care about them. So why would you want to stay in that environment?”
Mariah Woelfel covers Chicago city government and politics for WBEZ. You can follow her at @MariahWoelfel.